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Tue 25 January 2022

Military personnel are being asked to compensate for persistent HGV driver shortages in the wake of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam Bright reports

The army is still being used to deliver fuel to petrol stations – despite the policy originally being announced as a ‘precautionary’ measure, Byline Times can reveal.

Some 137 military personnel were still being deployed as HGV drivers on 10 December “in support to the energy sector for the distribution of fuel”, the Government stated earlier this week in response to a written parliamentary question.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng approved the deployment of military personnel in late September, amid nationwide fuel shortages. News stories about dwindling supplies at some forecourts caused a rush for fuel – dramatically increasing demand, exacerbating the problem and causing hours-long queues at many stations.

Kwarteng suggested at the time that the army was being used to alleviate these seemingly short-term issues, saying that, “the sooner we can all return to our normal buying habits, the sooner the situation will return to normal”.

However, it now appears that army personnel are required to keep the system functioning, even in more normal times.

Indeed, the fuel shortages were caused by a lack of HGV drivers – a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. The Road Haulage Association has estimated that there is a shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers in the UK, which has increased from 60,000 following the UK’s official departure from the EU in 2020 and the onset of the pandemic.

The Government subsequently attempted to ease these shortages by launching a scheme in early October, encouraging 300 EU drivers without a visa to enter the country. However, Byline Times revealed in November that only nine applications were made under the scheme, just 3% of the total.

The criteria for drivers under the scheme included: having an EU licence to drive HGV fuel tankers, alongside a commitment not to claim benefits, an intention to leave the UK after the expiry of the scheme, and an endorsement letter from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Consequently, due a lack of demand from EU drivers, it appears as though army personnel are being used to make up the shortfall.

The Government has announced a number of visa schemes, designed to boost the number of HGV drivers in the country – not just those transporting fuel. Overall, the UK has made 4,700 temporary visas available to HGV drivers, which will expire early in 2022. This is alongside 5,500 visas for poultry workers, and 800 for pork butchers.

However, Byline Times understands that the Government has so far been unwilling to share information with industry bodies on the success of the schemes. The Government has also repeatedly refused to provide this information to MPs – instead stating that details will be “published in the usual way via the Home Office’s quarterly immigration statistics”.

Yet, parliamentary questions show that the army is not only being used to drive HGVs. The Government also stated yesterday that army personnel had been deployed as driving test examiners for prospective HGV drivers wishing to gain licenses.

In fact, the army has been deployed on all manner of civilian projects in recent times. Earlier this week, it was announced that 750 armed forces personnel have been made available to the UK’s COVID-19 vaccine booster programme. According to the Government, the UK’s defence operation has supported more than 430 tasks in response to the pandemic.

As a result, even the Spectator – the right-wing magazine formerly edited by Boris Johnson – penned an editorial earlier this month observing that “the Prime Minister ought to ask: should Britain not have an NHS capable of responding quickly without needing to call in the army?”

Ironically, the Government’s reasonable worst-case planning estimate for Brexit – named ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ and released in August 2019 – anticipated supply chain disruption, leading to shortages of goods. The army on the streets was not a Brexit ‘dividend’ promised during the referendum campaign, but it certainly appears to be one of the upshots.

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